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Tuesday, 4 December 2018
Page: 12493


Ms MADELEINE KING (Brand) (18:55): I thank all those who've made contributions to this debate in the chamber today. I am happy to speak on the Higher Education Support (Charges) Bill 2018 and the Higher Education Support (Cost Recovery) Bill 2018. Previous speakers have spoken at length and in detail on the subject matter of this bill and I'll briefly outline the key points. Labor will support the bill, but an amendment has been moved by the member for Sydney, which I would like to speak to. The bill seeks to impose an annual charge on all higher education providers across Australia whose students are entitled to HECS-HELP assistance or FEE-HELP assistance. This charge will effectively act as a tax on all higher education providers—not a very effective one—minimal but nonetheless an extra tax on universities around the country. It will be in place in conjunction with the cost recovery bill amendment and will introduce a provision for an application fee for universities seeking approval while offering FEE-HELP to students, as well as providing administration for this annual charge.

Labor offers support for this bill but I note the amendment moved by the member for Sydney: that the House notes that over five years the government has cut billions in funding from Australia's universities and vocational education and training, making it harder for Australians to attain university and TAFE qualifications. It's imperative that the Australian public and those opposite are reminded of the cuts that they have made to this sector—significant cuts that will affect the operation of the great universities in this country that have been progressing education, knowledge, research and science for many, many years.

Labor believes, and has done so for a long time, that it's right that students do make a contribution to the cost of their higher education, but it does not mean that we think students should be forced to pay up-front fees. That's a notion that has been introduced before in this place by those opposite. Whilst the coalition members across the divide here argue and bicker about the merits of higher education in Australia and seek to restrict the research that goes on in those institutions, they also try to filter who gets to go to university. We on this side of the House understand that the funding of education—higher education or otherwise—is an investment in this country's future and shouldn't be considered a cost burden that you might cut at your earliest and briefest whim.

Whilst we don't oppose these measures, we've referred the bills to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for an inquiry in order to make sure there's no scenario in which the charges outlined in these bills will flow back to students through higher fees or through increased service charges applied to them by the universities. We know that Australian students already pay the sixth-highest fees in the OECD for university education and we don't want to see that figure rise any higher. And, of course, we know that if the government had had their way, as proposed in the 2014 budget, they would have already introduced $100,000 university degrees. That's one of the figures that was put about, in fact by a university I used to go to: the University of Western Australia. Some might say it was a courageous decision, but not so courageous in the end. Of course, those fees have not come through, but only through the efforts of the Labor Party in this place.

As it is, the government has already forced students to start paying off HELP debts when they only barely reach the minimum wage. Debt is a huge barrier in many aspects of Australian life; however, it is particularly hard for students from low-SES families to rise above and try to improve their lives through tertiary education when they have this extraordinary debt applied to them from what is a young age. It makes it very tough on these students. They certainly have a very difficult time trying to move out of home, let alone trying to get on with their lives and their careers through gaining a university degree.

The Liberal-National coalition government have smashed the funding levels of universities across the country, and I believe they have put the sector at significant risk. In my own state of Western Australia, we've seen the impact of the federal government's cuts: Curtin University will receive a cut of $86 million to its funding, Edith Cowan University will receive a cut of $49 million to its funding, Murdoch University will receive a cut of $35 million to its funding and University of Western Australia's funding will be cut by $38 million. This is not what Australians and Western Australians want to see from their federal government. They want to see improvements in funding and in participation. Labor does as well. We want to see increased participation in higher education across the country, and that's why we uncapped places when we were in government.

The government's decision to again cap undergraduate places will distort and smash the participation rates of people in higher education across this country. The recent reckless decision to cut $2.2 billion from universities and put this cap back in place will slash participation. Fewer and fewer students from diverse backgrounds will have access to higher education in this country. Research on this issue by the Mitchell Institute has found that these cuts will put at risk around 235,000 Australians who are seeking to go to university by 2020. This would devastate not only the university sector but the wider Australian economy as well. Labor has a plan in relation to higher education. We want to boost participation in the sector. We have announced $174 million in equity and pathways funding that will fund mentoring and pathways for students from areas with low university graduation rates. That funding is on top of Labor's almost $10 billion commitment to return to the demand-driven system from 2020, which will make sure that around 200,000 more Australians, over a decade, will get the opportunity of a university education.

I would like to have a think about my electorate of Brand. It covers the areas of Rockingham and Kwinana, which is a low-socioeconomic-status district with very low attainment rates in high school graduations and achievements and therefore into the university sector. Adding these charges and cutting funding from universities does not help the cause of young people from my electorate being able to go to university. They are seeking to improve their lives and seeking to participate in what some people call the 'new workforce' and in a changing economy, which will be a knowledge economy. If it is not that already, it will only go more towards that. University education and post-high school, higher education degrees will be essential for them to participate in the new economy of this nation and, indeed, the world. The current $2.2 billion worth of cuts, put on their lives by this government, will be devastating to their chances in the future.

Labor, however, has committed to a new $300 million universities future fund that will make sure that research and teaching facilities are modern, up to date and ready to face the challenges of the digital age. Having worked at a university for 10 years, I'm well aware that that is a challenge. Bricks-and-mortar universities need to adapt to a changing economy and the changing desire of students around the country to receive their education in different ways. They are adapting; it takes time. I know they are moving quickly, but it's tough and this future fund will help them to do it. At the end of the day, the Australian people will have two choices at the next election: a party that will properly fund our universities and protect our future or a party that wants to lock the gate against those seeking to improve their lives through education.

Labor is also conducting a review into the higher education sector. We are committed to a fulsome review of higher education and vocational education, which will look at the difficulties in the system. It is a very complex system. As I said, I worked for a number of years at a university and realise the changes. It would be good thing for more people in this place to realise the challenges. It would also be good if more people in this place were able to understand the importance of the Australian Research Council and the funding that it provides to universities. What they call the teaching-research nexus is a very important part of what higher education is in this country. Research is critical to higher education. Better research makes for better teaching. It makes for better access to more-advanced thoughts, theories and modes of education.

There was a remarkable thing earlier in the year. We found out in Senate estimates that Senator Birmingham had blocked $4 million worth of ARC grants to 11 projects. I believe that these were across discovery projects and perhaps also linkage projects. Anyway, they were Australian Research Council grants. It was an attack on the Australian Research Council, which is renowned throughout the globe for the extraordinary reputation of its peer review process. This is something that Senator Birmingham has flippantly disregarded, applying a very meek, childish test of judging someone's research proposal by a title. I might add that the forms a researcher has to fill in are limited in the number of letters you can use. You simply can't write out the whole title of your project; you have to make it brief. This can lead to a ridiculous misunderstanding when an incompetent minister decides to make a judgement because he thinks a two-sentence title—or not even that; it's a 20-word title—will dictate the whole benefit or otherwise of such research. Of course, it was an attack on the humanities and social sciences. It was a ridiculous judgement call on things this government simply doesn't like. It goes against any inkling of its so-called push for freedom of speech in universities when a ministerial direction, a little stroke of the pen, just cuts out research projects and, I might add, cuts out people's livelihoods at that.

I want to make it clear to people in this House and in the other place that academics are people too. They do research. They deserve to get paid for their research. They spend a lot of time doing their research. It turns out they have families. They have mortgages to pay as well. They pay their taxes. They send their kids to school. And a government like this one and its ideological warriors who sit inside their own impenetrable Canberra bubble—they make such a meal of this Canberra bubble, yet they are the ones trapped within it—ruin someone's livelihood with a stroke of a pen because they don't think it's worth it.

All the while in the background, you have an internationally renowned, peer reviewed, independent process that has been going on up until this time, very non-partisanly accepted as a means by which you would distribute precious research dollars. Of course, it's been attacked before, and that was by the former minister for education Brendan Nelson. He cut a few ARC grants. This is not the first time the Liberals have sought to giggle and titter at titles that they don't like the sound of. They really should stop it. They should consider what research is. They should consider the value of arts in this community. It's a community that values research into all manner of things—the technical sciences as well as the social sciences. You might remember former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the former member for Wentworth. He had this policy about science and innovation and how agile we could be—wouldn't that be great for the nation? Of course, that disappeared rather quickly when the knuckle-draggers in the government really didn't like science at all. They also don't like social sciences and history and reviewing history and thinking about the lessons we could learn from history.

Now the current minister for education has held up the approval of the Australian Research Council grants, again putting at risk people's livelihoods as they move into Christmas. This is ridiculous. It's unnecessary. It's an attack on higher education and an attack on research in this country—on a system that has served this nation very well. We depend on it to build this nation's knowledge economy, yet you take a pen out and you just rub someone's life and their livelihood out for a bit of a giggle and a stupid little Twitter statement—a couple of digits to make a laugh and get, I think, only about three likes for Minister Birmingham. So good on you! It's pettiness in the extreme. It's ridiculous. It denigrates research in this country. It's shameful. They attack the whole of the higher education system and, quite frankly, respect for Western civilisation—and they've attacked that before, haven't they? The words that come out are ridiculous—not from all members opposite, but some are pretty cranky with different things. One of them is about freedom of speech at universities and the protection of Western civilisation. Then, when someone wants to do research on that, they think it's not on because they don't like the title.

I urge the government to consider what it's doing sometimes. I'm sure you have friends and you talk to these ministers. Maybe you could give them a nudge and say: 'Calm the heck down. Stop this political interference into the independent Australian Research Council process which looks at these.' It is only a 30 per cent success rate. It is really hard to get an ARC grant. They work for months. You and I might have a couple of weeks off in January, but I can tell you that the researchers in this country won't. They will be doing their grant application, which takes them the full month. They will have rejoinder systems. They have to go back to their big research offices so they can get it through university admin before it even gets to the ARC, then have to come back again to improve the grant application so that they can get the grant. Some have been successful but have had to leave the country to get a job elsewhere, because a minister exercises a petty, ridiculous little decision-making power whereby he can just sweep someone's research away at the stroke of a pen. I really wish this government would stop it, would stand up for universities and would look after researchers.